The Cardman puffed and blew, like a demented dragon, riding into the light wind and exerting his energy as he struggled up the hill, under the railway bridge, on his way to Kenwyn. A man stood at the roadside, waving him down. It was Nick. Off-duty. The Cardman stopped beside him, pleased to steal a breather from his cycling.
`I don`t know why you don`t get a car,` Nick teased him.
`The exercise is good for me,` the Cardman replied, breathlessly.
`How did you do it?` Nick then asked.
`It`s quite simple, really. You just pedal away and, quite soon, the road levels off and you have reached the top of the hill …`
`No. No. I don`t mean riding up this hill. I was talking about Blade and his knife …`
`What about his knife?`
`He`s handed it in.`
`Good. I was expecting that,` the Cardman smiled.
`How did you do it?` Nick repeated his question.
`I just talked with him and listened to what he had to say. That`s all. There`s a good lad under all that aggression and insecurity. But I need to ask your help again, Nick.`
`What do you want?`
`There`s a girl there with them. She`s under age. A runaway from home. I`ve started to reach her and encouraged her to contact her family. Whether she has yet, or not, I`m not sure. But I want some time, Nick. A few days. Although I want you to know about her, I need you to hold off from taking this over from me. She`s safe at the moment. I know she`ll want me to help her to get home.`
`A few days?`
`That`s all I need.`
`What`s her name?`
`Paul. That`s what she calls herself. She`s thirteen.`
`Thirteen?` Nick exclaimed, horrified.
`I know. She looks older. Dressed as a lad. You may have seen her yourself without realising.`
`You know I must report this immediately. It`s far too serious to leave,` Nick said, gravely.
`Three days, that`s all I need,` the Cardman looked at Nick, persuasively. `She will seek me out, Nick. It`s the best way, rather than forcing her. Trust me.`
`What about her parents?`
`Just three days, Nick. That`s all I ask. And also that you keep away from me until I tell you what I`ve done. They can smell a policeman a mile off. And if they knew we were talking now, they`d feel unable to speak with me again.`
PC Nicholas thought for a moment. `Okay. You`ve done well with Blade. I`ll give you your three days … no longer.`
`Thanks, Nick. Now, if you don`t mind, I need to continue my ride. You should try it …` And, with that, the Cardman rode on towards home.
Nick watched him. `He`s been reading too many Cadfael books,` he chuckled. But, when he considered the seriousness of the situation, his smile faded. No, Mr Man with the Cards, I can`t leave you to do this on your own.
The first day …
It was dealt with discreetly. Even the Cardman, always so perceptive, had no idea that he was being watched. It was not just for the sake of the young girl. He needed to be protected, too. If there was the slightest chance of trouble, Nick would be there to give assistance. He did not trust the likes of Blade, however changed the Cardman said he was; and, experience told him, even the girl might turn nasty. No, Nick`s conscience would not allow him to spend those three days sitting at home, on holiday, just wondering what was happening. So, he watched from a distance, undetected, knowing that the days would be long and tedious. But, apart from his conscience being tested by the knowledge of the girl runaway, he had also grown very fond of the `man with the cards`. He was special; unique; and totally committed to helping others.
He did not have to wait very long. By midday on the first day, he noticed two hooded figures approach the Cardman. They talked for a short while before they withdrew from view. That is all that happened on the first day.
The second day …
The next day, the Cardman had only arrived in the square a few minutes before Nick noticed the two hooded figures appear at the periphery. The smaller of the two walked, slowly, into the centre of High Cross, where the Cardman stood. Nick could see clearly how he greeted the figure with a smile. So far, all seemed safe.
She was nervous. Hardly said a word. But, the Cardman sensed that she had made the decision to return home.
`Are your parents going to collect you?` he asked.
`Yes,` she lied, unconvincingly. `I`ve got to tell them where to come to. They won`t know Truro.`
`How are they coming?`
`By train, I think. Mum and my older sister. Dad`s left home. Gone off somewhere. I`m glad …` If she had not been trying to be so cool and in control, she would have cried.
`Here`s a good place for them to collect you,` the Cardman suggested. `It`s easy to find and it may be best for you, with other people around.`
`Yeah. Sounds good,` Paul agreed.
`Do you want me to speak with your mother?` he asked, kindly.
`Yeah,` Paul`s hazel eyes pleaded, like that little girl she really was inside her mature exterior. She passed him a piece of paper bearing a telephone number. Clearly, she had been hoping for his offer. The Cardman looked at it and wondered. His questioning eyes pierced Paul`s resolve and she instantly turned away.
`You haven`t telephoned at all, have you?` he asked, gently. No reply.
`Would you like me to do it for you?`
`Please,` she spoke so quietly he could hardly hear her.
The Cardman felt his love for this child pour out to her. `Come and see me this time tomorrow. I`ll tell you what I`ve managed to do.`
`I will. Thank you. Thank you, sir.` She looked at him with tears flooding from her eyes. She had never known such kindness from a man. It felt so good.
The telephone rang at the two-up-two-down in a grimy row of terraces. It was early evening. Louisa was preparing tea for Vicki and herself. Louisa hated the `phone ringing. It never brought good news anymore.
`Will you get it,` she called to her eldest daughter. She had no idea whether Paula, Vicki`s sister, was dead or alive. She lived in constant torment and misery, since the day she had gone missing. The police had done all they could; and still did. Search parties stripped bare the West Yorkshire countryside in their hunt. Helicopters flew overhead; the local newspapers carried the story of the missing teenager. But no positive news. Louisa feared the worst. She grimly remembered the fate of the poor Soham girls, just a few years earlier. Life was a nightmare, whatever the time of day. Louisa listened as Vicki answered the telephone, although she did not really want to hear. If it was a friend, she was worn out by sympathy. If it was one of Vicki`s friends, she could not relate to their trivial banter, however helpful it may be for her daughter.
`Hello … yeah … you`re ringing a number in Bradford. Who are you?,` Louisa heard her say. Instictively, she put down the saucepan she was carrying and walked to Vicki`s side. `Yeah … my sister`s been missing since May … her name`s not Paul, it`s Paula. I think I`d better hand this over to my mom.`
`Hello,` Louisa said into the mouthpiece, her hand shaking. `You know where Paula is?,` she repeated. `Is she? She`s well!` There was relief in her voice. `You`ve spoken with her? Where is she? Cornwall? How on earth did she get to Cornwall?` She listened to the man at the other end of the line. He sounded authentic, as much as it is possible to tell on the telephone. `Who are you? A friend? Have you told the police? Why not? Surely this is a matter for the police …` she started to become agitated. It was a natural reaction to the news. But she listened to the man. His voice was soft and, subconsciously, she was making a mental picture of what he may have looked like. He insisted that he had informed the police, but he also felt, for everyone`s sake, that the collection of Paula should be very low key. The collection of Paula. Yes, Louisa would go to the end of the earth, if necessary, to get her back. Yes, she would get a train tomorrow. Yes, yes, yes. Louisa could hardly believe what she was hearing. Paula was safe, unwashed but unharmed; living rough with a group of homeless men in a subway. They had looked after her. Protected her. Respected her innocence and tender age. And, above all, she now wanted to come home. Louisa cried; handed the `phone to Vicki to take down the details of where they must go. Then the telephone was replaced in its holder. The call was over as abruptly as it began. It all seemed unreal.
`Do I ring Ian?` Louisa asked Vicki. `He`s been so good and this is a matter for Social Services.` Ian had been like a family friend to them. Louisa even had his personal mobile number. Since Paula`s father had gone away, Ian had regarded the family home as safe for Paula to return to. But, he had insisted, he must be involved if and when that time came.
`You`ve got to tell him, mom. He needs to know. What if this man on the `phone is a liar. What if he`s …`
`He didn`t sound like that,` Louisa interrupted.
She telephoned Ian immediately. He responded swiftly, as Louisa expected he would. But he wisely suggested no major police involvement. He would speak with the Devon & Cornwall force and recommend that he, and only he, would accompany them to Cornwall the next day. It would be a long car journey. An early start. That did not matter to Louisa, she wanted to go immediately.
`No,` Ian told her, assertively. `You need some sleep, first. Once there, I`ll keep out of the way, so the lass will feel free to come to you. But I`ll watch from a safe distance.`
It all happened so smoothly. The journey to Cornwall was tiring, yet uneventful. Ian was quiet, but reassuring. He was their friend who had stood by them from the first time he entered their house and explained his role. And now he was driving them to collect Paula. Louisa could not let herself acknowledge the possibility of this nightmare coming to an end. Not yet. She had been disappointed so many times. Tenuous leads had so often ended with insurmountable brick walls. Louisa was fearful that even this would be the same.
They parked in a large car park beneath a massive railway viaduct. Everything looked strange; different. Louisa was shaking with nervous anticipation. Ian walked beside them until they reached the precinct.
`Go on ahead. I`ll not let you out of my sight. Go on …` Ian told them.
Following the Cardman`s instructions, the two women tentatively made their way along the precinct, getting nearer to the Cathedral with every hesitant step. What shall I do if this is all some elaborate hoax? How will I feel if he`s not there? How will I cope if she`s changed her mind? Louisa grappled with her negative thoughts.
Then, they were there. High Cross. It was smaller than Louisa had envisaged, having prepared, in her mind, the meeting with the stranger on the telephone.
And there he was; standing exactly where he said he would be. Suddenly, Louisa felt certain that it was all real, after all. They walked towards him. He smiled at them. A genuine smile. Welcoming. He greeted them both with an unexpected embrace, as if he had known them for years.
`Thank you for coming,` he said, enthusiastically. `I imagine it`s been a tiring journey.`
`Yes. Where`s Paula?` Louisa surprised herself by her need to dispense with normal courtesies.
`Look over there,` the Cardman said, smiling, pointing towards a small confectionery shop. Paula stood with Michael, watching. At the Cardman`s wave of a hand, Paula ran into the square and literally threw herself at her mother. It was all over. The months of pain and fear were lost in the warmth and love that flowed from mother to youngest daughter; from daughter to mother.
When Paula moved on to hug her sister, Louisa turned to the Cardman.
`Thank you. You`ve been so kind. Why have you done this?` she asked.
`Why did God create the world?` the Cardman replied, characteristically with a question. It was not the answer she expected. She thought for a moment. Should she say what she was thinking? It seemed ungrateful after all this man had done for her. Yes, she needed to say the words that spoke of the void that had tormented her. Life, for so long, had been a vast emptiness. At some place, within herself, she knew why; but it was easier to contend with the common-place – however unfulfilling that was – than to look for something different. So she said what she honestly thought, `I don`t believe there is a God.`
It was said. He would not like it; but it had to be said. And yet, this man appeared not to be shocked. He just looked sad. In his thoughts, he was not only facing this good woman from Bradford, but a world of disbelievers; an abyss of disinterest; so many sucked in by the smooth-talking lies of a consumer-led society. There was always enough money to buy the latest gadget, but never enough interest to steal, even a glimpse, of the word of God.
He looked at the woman`s face; tired, worn, pale, frightened, haunted, guilty, ashamed. It cried out to be set free; for something to fill that emptiness; something far greater than she could ever imagine possible.
And then he looked over her left shoulder and saw Paula being hugged by her sister. There was no way that Vicki would let her Paula free now that she had her back. For Vicki, this was a miracle. She had almost given up hope of ever seeing her kid sister again.
`Turn around,` the Cardman gently said to Louisa. `Do you see all that love between your two daughters?`
She smiled. It was the first smile the Cardman had seen upon her solemn, distrusting face. `Do you see the love between them?` he repeated.
`Then … you are seeing God at work. And He has been working for Paula ever since she arrived here. She has been protected in the most remarkable way. In a moment, look to your left and you will see a hooded lad standing at the edge of the square.` She turned and saw him, and also became aware of the crowd of onlookers. `His name is Michael,` the Cardman continued, `on the surface he is aggressive and full of empty bravado. But, beneath that mask, he`s a caring lad. It is he who needs your thanks, not that he would ever let you near enough to receive them from you. He used to carry a knife; he threatened people with it. It kept them at a distance; where he wanted them to be. That knife was a form of protection. He used it to protect your Paula. He would let no one near her; not even himself, if you understand my meaning. That lad has been like a guardian angel, and Paula is returned to you as pure as she arrived.`
`She wasn`t pure,` Louisa admitted, sadly. `Her father saw to that.`
`Yes, I had worked that one out,` the Cardman replied in a whisper. `With your help and Vicki`s, her pain from the past should ease a little, in time.`
`But it will never go away, entirely,` the woman added with a hint of venom as she remembered the man she once called `husband`; remembered, too, the God whom she blamed.
`Thank you so very much,` she said, looking the Cardman fully in the eyes. `I wish I could find a way to adequately repay you for your kindness.`
`You can,` he replied. `Think about what you said to me regarding God. And remember the love you have witnessed, here, this afternoon. For God so loves the world. Try and believe that, if you can. The reality is here before your eyes.`
And then she was gone, taking her two daughters with her. She came with one and returned with both. One had been lost, but now was found.